The U.S. must consider encouraging a ceasefire before stumbling into another complicated large-scale conflict.
Limited war is a form of warfare constrained by the exercise of deliberate restraint in the application of force and the pursuit of political-military goals that exclude annihilation. In Ukraine, all sides shared an interest in avoiding the use of nuclear weapons, and contrary to the Western narrative, Moscow’s goals were arguably confined to the destruction of hostile Ukrainian forces (“denazification”) and the establishment of a neutral Ukrainian state.
In the Middle East, the situation is very different. When Hamas fighters attacked Israel’s heavily fortified border at daybreak on October 7, the first wave of roughly 1,000 fighters advanced behind a curtain of rocket fire using motorcycles, pickup trucks, paragliders, and speed boats, Israeli forces were surprised. Ali Baraka, a senior Hamas official, said in an interview on October 8, “We made them think that Hamas was busy with governing Gaza, and that it wanted to focus on the 2.5 million Palestinians [in Gaza] and has abandoned the resistance altogether.”
In the days that followed, 3,000 fighters, including an unknown number from the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), penetrated Israeli territory, killing at least 1,300 Israelis and wounding approximately 3,500. Subsequent cross-border raids into Gaza revealed that some of the Israelis who were kidnapped were executed after entering Gaza.
The speed, coordination, and effectiveness of the Hamas operation was unexpected, but the horrific damage the Hamas fighters inflicted on Israel’s population was not surprising. Hamas exists for one purpose: to terrorize and kill Jews with the goal of destroying the State of Israel.
In response, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war and mobilized 360,000 reservists to form an army of between 470,000 and 500,000. Netanyahu is obviously determined to impart a lasting object lesson, one that will crush Hamas in Gaza and probably eliminate any more talk inside the Palestinian population of a “two-state solution.” Having already pulverized Gaza from the air, the stage is now set for a battle of annihilation. The question is: whose annihilation?
Israeli rage is justified and widely shared by Americans. Like the Israelis, Americans are inclined to see terrorism through the lens of 19th-century piracy: “no quarter given, none expected.” In this total war setting, the Geneva Convention cannot apply to Hamas’s terrorist forces. But how long can the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) wage total war, depriving Gaza’s Arab population of food and water, without creating an enormous humanitarian disaster that will play for years in the news?
Can Hamas and its leadership be destroyed without killing large numbers of civilians who may hate the Israelis but have nothing to do with Hamas? Does it not serve Hamas’s purpose for the IDF to become bogged down in an open-ended, full-scale ground invasion of Gaza because the urban conflict will unavoidably entail loss of innocent life? Does it not seem ominous that Hamas is urging the population of Northern Gaza to remain in the ruins of the city?
Americans stand behind Israel, but many are unconvinced that killing more Arabs in Gaza will solve Israel’s security problem. Americans also have doubts about the Israeli government’s ultranationalist officials, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. These men are widely seen as emboldening Jewish extremists.
These questions and concerns may explain why Israel is rushing to carry the war into Gaza. If Russian forces arrive to help Egypt and Turkey establish a humanitarian corridor, there will be Russian and Turkish troops in Gaza to defend the distribution of humanitarian aid. Outpacing the arrival of Russians, Turks, and Egyptians makes sense.
These points notwithstanding, the Middle East today is very different from the Middle East in 1973. Technologies have altered the conduct of warfare, but more importantly, the societies and states of the Islamic world have also changed. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey are different in character from what they were in the 1970s. None of the states bordering Israel will tolerate population shifts that introduce large numbers of Palestinian Arabs into their societies. Europeans want them even less.
Iran’s national leaders have already called on Islamic and Arab countries to form a united front against Israel, but Iran’s influence in these matters is more limited than most Americans realize. Iranian military power is largely restricted to Iran’s use of proxy militias like Hezbollah and their cooperation with the Pasdaran, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran is simply incapable of adding high-end conventional military forces to such a front. Tehran’s government also knows that the use of Iran’s formidable theater ballistic missile force against Israel risks almost certain Israeli nuclear retaliation.
The governments of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Lebanon are very probably opposed to a general war against Israel, but their enraged populations could easily trap them into doing so. Scenes of celebration across the Middle East showing people waving Palestinian and Hamas flags, dancing, and singing in the streets are being shared on social media.
Turkey’s President Erdogan has offered to mediate between Hamas and Israel, but Erdoğan himself has warned that the war won’t just stop “in a week or two.” However, Turkey, a nation of more than 80 million, is the one actor in the region with the societal cohesion, martial culture, and military power to lead the Sunni Arab states in a confrontation with Israel.
In a regional war, Turkey can field large armies and air forces equipped with modern weapons, manned by disciplined and determined fighters. The advent of a regional Sunni Muslim alliance guided by Ankara and financed by Qatar resurrects the specter of advanced conventional warfare for the IDF, a form of warfare known to only a few of today’s IDF leaders.
Sadly, the region has not advanced much beyond the conditions described by Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s Prime Minister in 1924 and again from 1929 to 1931:
We encouraged an Arab revolt against Turkey by promising to create an Arab Kingdom from the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire including Palestine. At the same time, we were encouraging the Jews to help us, by promising them that Palestine would be placed at their disposal for settlement and government, and, also at the same time, we were secretly making with France the Sykes-Picot agreement partitioning the territory which we had instructed our Governor-General of Egypt to promise to the Arabs. The story is one of crude duplicity, and we cannot expect to escape the reprobation which is its proper sequel.
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Both the Jews and the Muslims continue to live inside civilizational conflicts that have defined Jerusalem since World War I.
With American offshore naval power, Washington is certainly poised to stumble into the conflict if it widens, but the use of American naval power will not end it. Although it is distasteful to the ruling political class in Washington, the Biden administration should consider taking the lead in supporting a ceasefire, even if it means cooperating with the Turks, Egyptians, and Russians to secure the arrival of humanitarian aid.
In Ukraine, Washington underestimated Russian resolve and military power. Washington should not repeat this mistake by underestimating the potential for a regional Muslim alliance that could threaten Israel’s existence. The possibility that Israel could end up like Ukraine should not be discounted.